The first 28 games are in the books for the Indiana Pacers, and expectations have been exceeded in tremendous fashion. The Pacers are 23-5, sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings and would hold home court advantage if the season ended today.
As we all know, a large portion of the season is still ahead. With that said, Indiana is now entering a stretch of games that highly favor them to pull away from the Miami Heat in the East, record-wise.
On Friday, the Pacers reconvene from the Christmas holidays and will take on the Brooklyn Nets at home in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Brooklyn is been no stranger to the Pacers this season, having met them twice already. As horrid as the Nets have been this season, it goes without saying that both meetings resulted in victories for Indiana, most recently on Dec. 23rd in Brooklyn. The Pacers dismantled the Nets 103-86, getting huge contributions from Brooklyn-native Lance Stephenson and superstar Paul George. Both led the Pacers with 26 points, making 20 of the team’s 38 field goals. It’s obvious that Brooklyn doesn’t have the stability to compete at a high level without their leading scorer, Brook Lopez (foot injury), and it would take a miracle for the Nets to come into Indianapolis and steal a win. Brooklyn is 4-10 on the road, while Indiana is a league-best 13-1 at home. Advantage, Pacers.
Tuesday, Dec. 31st, the Pacers remain at home to battle the Cleveland Cavaliers. The last time Cleveland visited Indiana, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters combined for just 13-for-38 (34.2 percent) from the field, and Andrew Bynum was not yet active. The Pacers cruised to a 89-74 win, but it’s hard to picture it turning out the same with a 7’0″ center to go against Roy Hibbert this time around. Bynum has struggled in his returning season (averaging 8.6 points, 5.4 rebounds per game on just 41.5 percent shooting), but he’ll come out with added motivation knowing he’s up against the best center in the Eastern Conference, Roy Hibbert. Cleveland hasn’t been a proponent of great ball movement this season, ranking just 27th in assists with 19 per game. Not the winning formula when coming into this arena, as improved team chemistry and offensive execution will be needed to knock off Indiana. Advantage, Pacers.
The Pacers will then hit the road for Canada, as they take on the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 1st to kick off 2014. It’s rather sad (and hilarious) that Toronto looked to be headed in full-fledged tank mode after trading Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy, and Aaron Gray, and STILL currently find themselves with home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors are 5-3 since the trade, and recently overtook the Boston Celtics for the Atlantic Division lead. Against Indiana earlier this season, the primary reason Toronto stayed competitive (in a loss) was due to the fact they had Gay scorching the scoreboard for 22 points in the first half. This time around, I expect the game to be yet another low-scoring duel, as both teams don’t necessarily tend to push their offense in a quick fashion. Indiana ranks 22nd in “pace,” a statistic used to estimate the number of possessions a team has per 48 minutes. Toronto is also in the bottom tier of the league, ranking 23rd in pace. Opposed to the Paul George show we are accustomed to in the second half, this game has the making of an intense Roy Hibbert vs. Jonas Valanciunas battle in the frontcourt. Advantage, Pacers.
Heading back home, Indiana matches up with the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 4th. The Pelicans have recently been in a bit of a slump, losing four of their last five games with the only victory coming against Sacramento. That latest victory was largely due to the production of the returning Tyreke Evans, who was previously sidelined with a sprained left ankle. Since returning, Evans has averaged 19 points, and 9.3 assists per game off the bench. If he maintains this level of play, no other team has a sixth man that can produce to that extent in the second unit. Earlier in the season, it took Paul George’s 32 points and a late game-clinching 3-pointer from George Hill for the Pacers to escape New Orleans for a win, so don’t think Monty Williams and the Pelicans lack the confidence heading into this one. The Pelicans have emerged as a team that has dynamic firepower with guys that can score 20+ on any given night. The shocking part, however, is that their leading scorer has been power forward Ryan Anderson (20.4 points per game) while top candidate for “Most Improved Player of the Year,” Anthony Davis, continues to be the defensive anchor for the team. Despite Davis taking over the top spot in blocks per game (3.16 per game), the Pelicans’ defense as a whole has been among the worst statistically, ranking 26th overall in points allowed per contest. The Pacers’ discipline on defense is the factor that makes these teams nearly opposites of each other. Advantage, Pacers.
Following these four games, the Pacers enter a mode of repetition by taking on the Cavaliers and Raptors yet again (Jan. 5th and Jan. 7th, respectively). That’s a total of six games the Pacers have that are widely considered “gimmes” for one of the two best teams in the league.
Why does this matter?
It’s a PERFECT opportunity for Indiana to increase their lead atop their conference, which is currently only a 1-game lead over the Miami Heat. Not only that, but taking into account the upcoming schedule for Miami, this will be the ultimate sweet spot for the Pacers. Miami’s next four games include three road games at Sacramento, Portland, and Denver. The Trail Blazers and Nuggets always perform at an extreme level at home and, in my opinion, it’s going to take godly performances from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for Miami to come out of that stretch 3-0. When they return home, Miami takes on the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 2nd.
With one or two losses for the Heat in the next two weeks and the Pacers cleaning the house due to a lack of schedule strength, Indiana can prove how badly they want the Eastern Conference Finals to go through Bankers Life Fieldhouse.